Where dark and light meet

The Ivory and the Horn
by Charles de Lint

I first discovered de Lint years ago and quickly fell in love with his world where fantasy and real-life middle America meet in stories that are both scarily dark and almost frothily light. It’s an amazing creation that this collection of short stories opens up beautifully.

Short stories are a perfect fit for de Lint. All his tales are set in the “realistic” city of Newford and the magical realm that many of its inhabitants travel to – some at will, others involuntarily or only in their sleep. The short story format allows all these different experiences to be depicted without laborious explanation.

The characters are mostly people who are struggling with life in some way and need an escape, or did when they were children. Many are or have been homeless. There are also a lot of artists and writers, presumably because their creativity and social circles tend to make them open-minded and curious about the world.

Not everyone in these stories goes to the magical world. Some have strange experiences that as a reader you put down to magic. Others are fully immersed, even to the point of drifting through the “real” world while living in the magical one. This is roughly the progression of the book. We see more and more of the magical world in later stories. In early ones, it’s more hints and whispers.

The stories are narrated in the first person, or alternate between first and third person, and de Lint’s writing allows you to quickly get to know each character, so that when they pop up later in someone else’s story it feels familiar and friendly.

The dark element comes from the reasons people have for escaping to another place, or wanting magic on their side. From chronic shyness to psychiatric problems to child abuse and the many reasons why a person might be homeless, the possibilities of magic are anchored heavily down to earth. There’s a strong sense of living inbetween, of the magic being a metaphor for other coping mechanisms.

The stories stand alone if you want to read them that way, which is good as most of them had been previously published in magazines or anthologies. Each has a strong storyline, a journey for its main character, a start, middle and end. They gain further dimensions by being in a collection but they don’t depend on it.

I do love being able to revisit characters from books I read years ago. One of the main linking characters is Jilly Peppercorn, an artist and star of my favourite de Lint novel, The Onion Girl. I didn’t realise when reading that book that she had featured in several previous Newford books. In fact, de Lint said in an interview that she is the “warm beating heart of the city” (can’t find the link right now).

One criticism I have of this book is that it’s occasionally trite. For all of the dark pasts and presents, most characters end their story in a better place and they almost always learn a life lesson. I suppose when dealing with depressing subjects it helps to have a lighter side.

In a similar vein, all of the narrators are such…good people. I know a lot of people struggle to read about a main character who’s bad or unpredictable, and it’s a nice idea that most people are good at heart, but I think there’s room in de Lint’s universe for a few more, if not evil, at least selfish or mischievous characters.

But they’re minor quibbles. I loved these stories. I think my favourites were “Bird bones and wood ash”, about a woman who is imbued with supernatural abilities by animal spirits and uses them to fight evil, literally donning a black bodysuit, gloves and hood, but it drains her and joining forces with a social worker almost ruins everything; and “Mr Truepenny’s Book Emporium and Gallery”, about a dreaming place invented by a child that is falling to rack and ruin because she never visits anymore.

I have been reminded how much I enjoy this blend of myth and reality – de Lint calls on all sorts of mythologies, from Native American to the Brothers Grimm to Shakespeare – and I will definitely have to look out for the Newford titles that are missing from my collection.

Published 2005 by Tom Doherty Associates